Anyone can do a lot with a lot. It's doing a lot for a little that takes some serious game. While there's nothing wrong with running 11s in a supercharged big-block, fourth-gen Camaros can run just as fast with a cam swap and headers, so it takes the pimp factor out of all those pressurized cubic inches. Similarly, pulling 1.27-second 60-foot times is plenty mean, but doing it with tubs and a four-link is merely "meh." Doing it with leaf springs and 275mm radials is downright heroic. Although similar examples abound in the world of drag racing, transforming a lumbering muscle car into an apex-slicing machine always costs big bucks. Or does it? Since the stock suspension systems in most muscle cars are heaping piles of poorly engineered junk, it's only natural to draw such conclusions. Nevertheless, there is an often-overlooked exception to the rule, and it's called the C3 Corvette. As machines built to run with the Porsches and Ferraris of its day at a fraction of the cost, it doesn't take much for C3s to stick it to the big boys. Resounding proof comes in the form of Gary Lackore's 1971 Corvette. Despite making do with a mostly stock suspension, mostly stock brakes, and a mostly stock Gen I small-block Chevy, it hangs with pro-built and pro-driven g-Machines on the autocross. Credit some of that to GM engineers, and some of it to Gary's car-building savvy. This is one man who has got doing a lot for a little down to a science.
As a kid growing up in Iowa, Gary caught the hot rodding bug while sweeping the floors at his dad's auto parts store. Although he dreamed of owning a Corvette someday, he cut his teeth on a more affordable 1968 Coronet that served as his high school car. "We sold performance parts as well as stock replacement parts at my dad's store, so I figured it would be good advertising to have a fast car. I pulled out the 318 small-block, dropped in a 440, and ran 11.80s in the car at the track," he recalls. When he turned 18, Gary saved up enough money to buy his first Corvette, a 1968 convertible with a 427 big-block and a four-speed manual trans. Two more C3 Corvettes came and went over the years, but getting rid of the last one was particularly painful. "After my son was born in 1987, I had to pay some hospital bills and didn't need a two-seater anymore, so the Corvette had to go. Not long after that, my wife decided that we needed some new furniture, so I had to sell the Coronet."
After a 21-year hiatus, Gary wanted to get back in the game. He tracked down a nice 1971 Corvette online, and flew out the next day to check it out, hoping that he wouldn't have to use the return ticket. "I saw the ad online for an original four-speed LT1 1971 Corvette on a Thursday, and I was trailering it home with a U-Haul on Friday. Once you get a taste for high performance it's hard to get it out of your system," he admits. "I wanted a nice driver like the Corvette I sold back in 1987, and although this car had some wiring issues, clutch problems, and a whiny rearend, the body and frame were in great shape. As I started building this car, my goal was to improve its performance while keeping it retro and old school. That's why I stuck with the 350 small-block and the Muncie four-speed. I thought about upgrading to an LS small-block and a five-speed, but I couldn't justify the cost. I wanted to make it as close to a Pro Touring car as possible without putting the latest and greatest technology in it. Don't get me wrong, modern technology is great, but I wanted this car to be a testament to how good some of the older technology was."
While revamping the underpinnings of a Chevelle or first-gen Camaro to modern standards requires swapping out control arms, installing drop spindles, revising suspension pickup points, and bolting up sway bars where none previously existed, the bulk of the C3 suspension hardware is ready for battle straight out of the box. The suspension mods on Gary's Corvette are limited to Koni shocks, Global West strut rods, and a stiffer rear leaf spring and traction bars from Vette Brakes & Products. The factory brakes—11.75-inch discs with four-piston calipers—are so capable that Gary didn't even bother swapping them out for aftermarket units. Then there's that factory Corvette independent rear suspension to keep the back planted. The foundation for all this factory-engineered goodness is a beautifully balanced and lightweight chassis. "At the Goodguys show, I had my car corner-weighted in the RideTech booth. It weighed 3,250 pounds, and the weight was nearly identical at all four corners of the car," Gary recalls.
Talking trash about the greatness of the C3 chassis is useless without some pertinent evidence, and this Vette has the lap times to back up it all up. At the Goodguys Lone Star Nationals last spring, Gary's C3 finished in Fifth Place out of a field of 32 entrants in the Street Machine class. That's pretty darn impressive considering that some of the cars that finished ahead of him were built and driven by pros, while others had paintjobs that cost more than Gary's entire car. He figures that he's got about $30,000 invested in his Vette, which is close to what you'd have to pay to get a bone-stock first-gen Camaro or Chevelle in similar condition to Gary's car. So what's the secret to building a machine that performs so well around an autocross for such a reasonable bundle of cash? Saving money up front is half the battle. "These cars have steadily appreciated over time, but you can still buy a 1968-72 steel-bumper Corvette that needs little to no bodywork for $20,000. They don't have the best ride quality, but it doesn't take much work to get them to handle very well," Gary says.
With such a dialed-in and balanced chassis, a behemoth motor isn't necessary to run blistering lap times. Gary says less than 2,000 LT1 engines made their way into Corvettes in 1971, so it's not surprising that he stored the original short-block away for safe keeping in his garage. In its place is a 355ci small-block Chevy based on a four-bolt block and a forged rotating assembly. It breathes through World Products iron cylinder heads, an Edelbrock Victor Jr. intake manifold, and a Holley 750-cfm carburetor. As a tribute to the original LT1, a COMP 248/248-at-.050 solid roller camshaft provides plenty of duration for high-rpm operation. The old-school combo lays down a respectable 362 rear-wheel horsepower, which is more than enough to get the job done. "The autocross is not about horsepower. It's about being smooth and making the most of the power that you've got," Gary opines. "I've only been autocrossing for four years, but I've learned that you can't be scared to drive your car hard. I don't care about hitting cones because the scuff marks will come right off. If I break the car, hey it's just a 1971 Chevy, not some $100,000 trailer queen."
Considering everything these early C3 Corvettes have going for them, the fact that you can buy one for such a reasonable price is a paradigm of irony at its finest. They may have been far more expensive than the typical F-body or A-body during the 1960s and 1970s, but 40 years later market demand had dictated that Vettes are now the cheaper cars. The hierarchy has reversed, which means that the lumbering solid-axle yachts of yore command a premium over their agile independently suspended stable mates. Of course, anyone can do a lot with a lot, and even yachts can handle well with a catalog full of parts, however if the goal is to build a car that can rip through an autocross or road course on a budget, the less expensive C3 Corvette—and its far more sophisticated suspension—promises to do a lot for a little.
BY THE NUMBERS
1971 Chevy Corvette
Type: Chevy 355ci small-block
Block: factory iron bored to 4.030 inches
Oiling: Melling pump; Canton pan and Accusump
Rotating assembly: Scat forged steel 3.480-inch crank, GM rods, Sealed Power 11.0:1 forged pistons
Cylinder heads: World Products Sportsman II iron castings with 2.02/1.60-inch valves
Camshaft: COMP Cams 248/248-at-.050 solid roller; .525/.525-inch lift; 110-degree LSA
Valvetrain: COMP Cams valvesprings, retainers, lifters, pushrods, and 1.6:1 rocker arms
Induction: Edelbrock Victor Jr. intake manifold, Holley 750-cfm carburetor
Ignition: Mallory distributor, coil, and plug wires
Exhaust: Hooker 1.875-inch headers/side pipes, Spiral Turbo baffles, dual 4-inch outlets
Output: 362 hp and 366 lb-ft at rear wheels
Transmission: Muncie M22 four-speed, Spec aluminum flywheel, McLeod twin-disc clutch, Hurst shifter
Rear axle: factory independent rear suspension with 4.11:1 gears, 31-spline axles, and limited-slip differential
Front suspension: stock with Koni coilovers and urethane bushings
Rear suspension: VBP 420-pound leaf spring and traction bars; Global West strut rods, Koni shocks
Brakes: stock GM 11.75-inch discs with EBC pads, front and rear
Wheels & Tires
Wheels: Vintage Wheel Works V40 17x8, front; 18x9.5, rear
Tires: Nitto NT555; 245/45R17 (front) and 285/40R18 (rear)
An accumulator mounted in front of the radiator prevents oil starvation during hard corner
Partially responsible for the Vette’s 50/50 front/rear weight distribution is a motor set
The Vette’s interior is far more driver oriented than in the vast majority of muscle cars.